It’s a historic year for the Toronto Maple Leafs as they celebrate their 100th NHL season. A vital part of the Leafs success has been an association with an organization that has been around for 117 years, the Toronto Marlboros. As a young hockey player and Leaf fan in the 1960’s, the Junior ‘A’ Marlboros were a team I followed with great passion. As any young player in the city dreaming of an NHL career at that time knew, the main route to get there was by playing Marlboros hockey at some level. In many ways, it’s still that way today as recent graduates such as Connor Brown and Connor McDavid can attest. Attending Marlboros games back then was affordable and I spent many a Sunday afternoon at Maple Leaf Gardens watching future Leafs and other future NHL players compete. It’s a long history so I will follow up with more articles later, but let’s start with an introduction to the founding of the team and the beginning of its association with the Leafs.
During the summer of 2004, MLSE announced that in time for the 2005-2006 season they would be relocating their AHL farm team from St.John’s Newfoundland to Toronto. The team would play in a newly renovated Coliseum owned by the City of Toronto. The City had authorized a large renovation costing in the neighbourhood of$40 million with the hopes of attracting an AHL team and to host other events. Attempts had been made to move a couple of minor professional teams into the arena but had failed. The Leafs had also raised concerns about having another team’s farm team operating in their territory. For 2003-2004 AHL season the City was able to reach an agreement with the Leafs and the Edmonton Oilers moved the the Hamilton Bulldogs to the Coliseum. Attendance was poor and the team defaulted on its lease in the first season. The Leafs took this opportunity to move their own team into the Coliseum and signed a long term lease. At the time they changed the name from the St. John’s Maple Leafs to the Toronto Marlies. The name change that acknowledged the past was a welcome one for many fans of the team.
The Toronto Marlboroughs Athletic Club was founded in 1899 by a local businessman named John Earls. Athletic clubs had been formed in various parts of the city that saw athletes participate and compete in many sports. Mr. Earls included the Marlboroughs name in honor of the Duke of Marlborough. The Dukes were a noble English family with branches that included the Spencers and the Churchills. The team was eventually given permission to use the Duke family crown as their logo and the initials “A.C.” for Athletic Club were added. The Club participated in sports such as baseball, tennis, rugby, football, lacrosse, boxing and hockey. Most of the athletes were multi-sport athletes. In some cases the entire group of athletes played on numerous teams. They competed against other sporting clubs in the City and surrounding regions. There was the Balmy Beach Athletic Club for instance and also the Argonaut Rowing Club, offering teams or individual athletes to compete in the various sports. The Toronto Argonaut Football Club was formed in 1873 and is still in operation, having just won their 17th Grey Cup on Nov. 26, 2017.
For the hockey program, the Marlboroughs began by entering a Junior (14-18) team in the Toronto Lacrosse Hockey League in 1899. The team won the League Championship the following season. The Club then entered a team in the Senior Division (Open) in the OHA. The Senior Divison allowed the possibility of a team to compete for the Stanley Cup, which at the time was a challenge tournament. The Senior Marlboroughs won OHA championships in 1903-04 and in 1904 -05 and competed for the Stanley Cup in a challenge with the Ottawa Silver Seven. The Marlboroughs lost in a two game total goal series. The junior team continued to excel and also entered the OHA, winning a championship in 1903. In 1927, Conn Smythe bought the Toronto St. Pats of the NHL and changed the name to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Smythe had experience managing and coaching in the OHA Senior league and knew that a junior farm team would be of great value to the Leafs and bought the Club. The name Marlboroughs was informally changed to Marlboros around this time and the crown logo on the uniforms was incorporated with the Leaf logo. The Club still ran teams in Senior OHA hockey, an Intermediate OHA team, as well as Midget and Bantam teams that played in the T.H.L. (Toronto Hockey League). NHL teams of that era were responsible for scouting and developing their own talent without the benefit of central scouting or a draft of players. Using a formula that has never changed, teams that had success scouted well and had a good foundation of players in various levels of development under their control. Smythe made a wise decision in purchasing and operating the Marlboros program as it began to produce players for his NHL teams on a regular basis.
So, that should tell you a little bit about the beginnings of the Marlboros team and name and how it began to relate to Leaf history. The athletes of that era mainly came from families that were well off, as membership in the various clubs wasn’t always within reach of many parents. The versatility of the athletes of that era was quite impressive, many of them playing in top rugby, football and lacrosse leagues well into their professional years. If you are not aware of Lionel Conacher, do a quick search of his name and read his sporting resume. He never played for the Leafs but is probably one of the most famous multi-sport athletes there is and played for many Toronto area Athletic Clubs. The nickname Dukes should make some sense to you now as well and you may have just found out that they once competed for the Stanley Cup.
Next time around I’ll go into the relationship with the Leafs and how it progressed. Until then, thanks for reading.